Mercy airlift: l/r Stephanie Pavone, Fipe Howard.

More than ten tonnes of relief supplies are being airlifted from Australia to flood affected areas of Fiji after a remarkable grass roots campaign by Fijians of all races living in Sydney. An outpouring of generosity from ordinary Australians responding to media reports of the floods saw complete strangers leaving packages at the homes of their Fijian neighbours. “I went outside and there was this box full of beautiful kids clothes labeled simply – To the Children of Fiji”, said Joweli Ravualala, one of the organisers of the airlift. “The way Australians have rallied around us to help the relief effort has been fantastic. We know they like to holiday in Fiji but it’s amazing to see how much ordinary Australians love the country and its people”.

l/r Mark Petersen, Fulori Bakoso, Lily Wong, Fipe Howard, Merlyne Jamieson, Stephanie Pavone, Rohit Naidu, Joweli Ravualala, Luse Vula

Mr Ravualala said he had sometimes been deeply moved by the kindness shown to the volunteers involved in the appeal.“One elderly lady spent two weeks of her pension on relief items. When I went to pick them up, she also insisted on giving me money for petrol and my lunch. I was so touched I went outside and burst into tears”, he said.

The airlift is the culmination of three weeks of intense effort by Fijians all over Sydney, some from community groups like the Methodist Church and others “Old Grammarians” – ex students of the Suva Grammar School. One of these, Merlyne Jamieson, lit the spark with a simple Facebook posting that became a viral internet campaign on behalf of flood victims. “I simply said in one posting ‘ we have to do something to help these people’ and it set off a chain reaction across the social media. I couldn’t believe how quickly it spread and how many people it reached”, she said.

Heavy lifting: George Fonmoa (l)

As well as the internet, the organisers had another key ally in the form of Fipe Howard, a Fijian broadcaster on Radio Skid Row.“Fipe was able to publicise the collection points for relief items all over Sydney and the stuff just started pouring in”, Ms Jamieson said.“It was mainly our houses and garages. I’d come home from work every night and there’d be a whole stack of fresh items left on my front porch”. The wave of contributions was so great that some volunteers found themselves overwhelmed. “I had to tell everyone ‘enough, enough” because I simply had no more room for the mountain of things being left by the public”, Joweli Ravualala said.

The organisers were at first concerned about how they would get the material from suburban Sydney to the flood affected areas in Fiji. Air Pacific came to the rescue, offering to fly the entire shipment free of charge. “Air Pacific and its Sydney manager, Victor Sharan, have been wonderful”, Merlyne Jamieson said. “It’s times like this when you realise how important the national airline is to Fiji because who else would have done it?”.

l/r Lily Wong, Luse Vula, Fulori Bakoso, Stephanie Pavone, Joweli Ravualala

An army of volunteers, including former Suva resident Mark Petersen and beauty therapist Fulori Bakoso, took time off work and used borrowed or rented trucks and vans to ferry the donated material to a central collection point. This was the vast freight installation near Sydney Airport operated by another company with Fiji ties –DHL -which also provided its services free of charge. One of DHL’s Fijian staff, Rohit Naidu – formerly of Lautoka – supervised the loading of the pallets assisted by a team of volunteers including Stephanie Pavone, Lily Wong, Luse Vula and George Fonmoa.

The consignment consists of a vast array of clothing, personal and household goods plus large amounts of non-perishable foodstuffs headed for Nadi and the distribution network of DISMAC – Fiji’s disaster relief agency. “They should be pleased with what arrives”, Joweli Ravualala said. “ One shoe shop in North Sydney donated hundred of pairs of new shoes so there’s going to be some very smart looking feet in the flood affected areas”, he laughed.

A job well done

The organisers of the airlift have expressed their thanks to everyone who gave donations of cash and goods and the volunteers who provided their time and all the lifting. “We’re especially grateful to some of our employers, who understood that we needed to take time off to help people back home, donated things themselves or lent us the vehicles we needed to move things”, Merlyne Jamieson said. It’s also made people extremely proud to be Fijian. “ This has united the Fijian community in Australia – the Indo-Fijian community groups, the i’taukei churches and everyone who became involved”, Mr Ravualala said. “Above all, our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the floods in Fiji. However tough things are, we hope it’s some comfort that they are not alone. There are people overseas who care”.

The article is also appearing in the Fiji Sun.